Venice is home to gondolas, masks and Carnevale, but did you know it is also a major center for modern art? The heiress Peggy Guggenheim once lived there and left her lovely, art-filled palazzo as a modern art museum. Current artists live and work in the city today. Because of this, one of the biggest events in Venice is undoubtedly the bi-annual international art exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia or the Venice Biennale. If Venice is in your travel plans in an odd year (like 2017), this art show should be on your list.
What is the Biennale?
The Venice Biennale started over 100 years ago, with the first edition in 1893. It was set up as a sort of rival to the famous Paris Salon art scene, and intended to showcase Italian modern artists. The city decided to use the neighborhood of the Arsenale, or the old shipyards, to organize the exhibit.
In the nearby public gardens or Giardini, a building was built to house the event, eventually becoming the Italian pavilion. As countries in Europe became interested in participating in the show, new pavilions were commissioned in the garden, designed by the hot architects of the time, making each country’s pavilion a work of art.
Over time, many countries have added pavilions to the gardens. The show has overflowed and now fills both the gardens and the Arsenale warehouses, as well as individual buildings all over the city. Any country that wishes (and can afford it) can rent a structure in the city.
The Venice Biennale displays contemporary art, meaning that it displays the most important artists in that year as chosen by a panel from each participating country. Past artists on display have included Gustave Klimt, Modigliani and Picasso.
These days, the Biennale is a curated show that focuses on a theme. This year it is being curated by the director of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the theme is “Viva Art Viva”, whatever that means. Each country picks an artist to fill their pavilion wth art on that theme, which can be painting, sculpture, video, performance art or whatever else an imagination can muster.
The artists chosen may not be recognizable for the average person on the street but are usually big names in the art community. Sometimes there are very famous names– I remember the great Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei filled a pavilion with flying stools a few years ago. Magical.
Modern Art is too Weird. Why Should I Go?
For me, the Biennale is one of the most delightful events I’ve been to, I am filled with excitement every (other) year. Yes, the exhibits are strange and don’t always make any sense. Some exhibits are boring. Some are so esoteric and pretentious that they are off-putting. Some are gross, stupid or offensive. But on the whole, I find them to be intriguing, sometimes delightful and thought-provoking. That’s the point of art, to make you think and look at the world a different way.
It’s kind of hard to explain exactly what the Biennale is with words. It’s sort of like a Disneyland for modern art. Some displays are interactive, like a ride. Some are visual theater, with sound and light shows. Some are weird, experiential sculptures. And some are just paintings on the walls…those ones are boring in comparison.
The best way to explain the Venice Biennale is to show it to you. Here are a few highlights from this year and my impressions. I may not totally “get” what the artist intended, but I don’t actually mind. In my opinion, art is something personal, the thoughts and opinions of the viewer are just as important as the artist’s intentions. Ready? Andiamo!
The Russian Pavilion
Say what you will about the Russians, they are consistently one of the best at the Biennale. Maybe it’s all the tragedy and angst. Maybe it’s the Vodka. Either way, their pavilion is usually one of my favorites. This year was no different. The top level had rooms filled with intriguing white sculptures, overlaid by a sound and light show. It was like a fairy landscape with a dark undertone.
In the lower level, an artistic group created large blocks that had people struggling to emerge, reminding me of Michelangelo’s Slaves. Yawn. Seems kind of cliche. But then I noticed people looking at the sculptures through their iPads and smartphones. When the camera was pointed at a sculpture using the artist’s app, the figures extended into a virtual space filling the room. It was stunning, and an interesting statement on seeing the world filtered through social media. Smart, interesting and interactive.
The American Pavilion
This one sucked. I was disappointed. The American exhibit is usually sort of hit-or-miss, unfortunately, and this year was a big miss for me. On entering the pavilion, you have to skirt around a big, heaving mass of multicolor yuck. The rooms after have blotchy paintings that a docent explained are representations of cells, viruses and contagion. A statement on the AIDS epidemic perhaps. Meh.
The Israel Pavilion
I’d heard about this one from a friend and local guide, she said she couldn’t even go near the building because the smell bothered her too much. The theme of the art is decay, or I have to assume that is the intention as the entire building is filled with mold.
The walls and floors are intentionally growing mold. A giant poof of cotton or some such fills the center of the gallery, slowly turning orange, green and black. It looks exactly like the mold on top of the cottage cheese that gets forgotten at the back of my fridge. I always intend to eat it but forget and find it months later, covered in orange hair.
There is a warning sign on the door warning about the mold. The smell didn’t bother me, it smelled like coffee, actually, but I guess I tend to think that everything in Italy smells like coffee. I will go back in October and see this pavilion again, I am curious to see how it progresses.
The Great Britain Pavilion
I am usually fascinated by the Brits, as British contemporary art can be great. A few years back, the pavilion had a mandatory tea service half-way thought the exhibit. Loved it! Last time it was all plaster casts of people’s butts with cigarette butts stuck you-know-where….OOOOOH! Now I get it! A butt with a butt in it! Only took me two years to figure it out.
This year was large scale sculptures called “Folly”. Made with paper and wood, there were columns, globs and something that looked like a huge box spilling spaghetti. Huh. Um. Ok. It was a fanciful folly, as the name implied, but i didn’t find it much deeper than that.
The Korean Pavilion
This time is a play on pop culture and pole dancing. The exterior is all decked out in movie marquee neon, and inside is a wall of screens with an interesting video installation. There is a pole for pole dancing, but I didn’t give it a go since I wasn’t sure it was allowed.
The highlight (or possibly lowlight) is a version of Rodin’s “The Thinker”, but this time he appeared to be sitting on the toilet and was made of Pepto Bismol and toilet paper. Maybe that’s what “The Thinker” was up to all along! I will never see Rodin the same way again.
The Japanese Pavilion
I’m still stuck on the work from Japan in 2015, it was a boat draped in red yarn and so etherial. This year was a participatory piece. Outside of the building, people line up to stick their heads through a hole in the underside of the building. Of course I did it. Once you pop up through the floor, there is a miniature cityscape surrounding your head…and a pavilion of people watching you. I felt like Godzilla about to crush the town, while being the art myself.
I did like the upside-down city models surrounding that performance piece, they reminded me of when I used to make architectural models in college.
The French Pavilion
France almost always does something amazing, whether it is real trees hooked up to motors, and audio assault or huge running tracks of printing presses. Music or audio art is the theme for them again.
The pavillion is set up like a recording studio, but the most beautiful and sculptural one you’ve ever seen. There are instruments everywhere, visitors are invited to play, and the music is mixed and recorded. I was there on a day when people didn’t get it, and sadly, I don’t play any instrument well enough to not humiliate myself, so there was only recorded music. It was still neat, but not the actual intention of the piece. Even so, I’d say it was one of the better pieces of the show.
The German Pavilion
I totally did not get this one, but I learned later that it was a performance art piece. The interior of the pavilion was gutted and open, with glass floors. Side rooms had hoses and suspicious objects scattered on the ground, along with bars of soap that made it all the more suspicious.
It turns out that a group of artists show up occasionally and roll around the under the glass floor, as some sort of statement on social media. I was glad they weren’t there…I was wearing a dress wth a wide skirt. Apparently there were supposed to be German Shepherds guarding the entrances but they became too spooked by the crowds. Better for me, I’m afraid of dogs. All of it fell flat without the performance.
The Danish Pavilion
The last pavilion I hit was Denmark, which was by design because it required timed tickets. Their display was called “Influenza” and was an audio-visual piece, using the pavilion as a theater. The lights turned off completely and only small pins of light moved around to a story narrated by Emma Thompson and what had to be Tilda Swinton. It was interesting, exploring the connection between growth and light, but at 30 minutes, it was too long. After being in the heat and sunshine, a cool and dark theater was a bad ide…a….zzzz….zzzzz…zz.
I visited other pavilions, but the ones I’ve described were the biggies. I liked Switzerland’s movie about Giacometti’s lover. Spain’s audiovisual thing was boring, as was the Netherlands. Belgium’s pavilion was too hot to even look at. Finland was flat-out bizarre and vaguely offensive. The Czech exhibit looked like the artist got a great deal on cheap Christmas lights and called it art.
More at the Venice Biennale
There is far more to the Venice Biennale that these few exhibits. In fact, I haven’t even made it to half yet. The Arsenale buildings are included in the ticket price and display another slug of projects.
Throughout the city, beautiful Venetian palazzi are open to the public for free to see the overflow exhibits that don’t have pavilion space. Sometimes, the exhibit isn’t nearly as interesting as being able to go into palazzi that are typically closed to the public. It’s my favorite activity in Venice during Biennale years, just popping in to the free exhibits wherever I see one.
If you are a big art lover and want to dedicate your time to the Venice Biennale, you’ll need at least a full day. Start at the opening and do the Giardini (gardens) first to see all of the biggies while you’re fresh and it isn’t too crowded. Have lunch at the Biennale, there are lovely spots with good food in the gardens. Then head to the Arsenale if you have energy and drop by any associated free exhibits on your way back to your hotel.
Does this sound vaguely interesting to you but not worth the $25 admission? No problem. Look for the free pavilions all over town to get a taste of it and see if it’s your thing. Pavilions are marked by the red square with a red lion on top, you’ll see the logo everywhere. Ask for a Biennale map, which has the locations of all the palazzi displaying art right now. Check out my report on YouTube to see more.
Even if you don’t have an interest or intention to see the Biennale, you’ll see it anyways. The art is everywhere. The big, splashy piece this year has a set of arms coming out of the Grand Canal, holding up (or dragging down) a palace.
I absolutely adore this event. It will challenge you, bore you, make you laugh, cry, vomit and scream. That a single event can elicit so many emotions, that’s what art is really all about. If you happen to be in Venice in an odd year, GO.
For information on hours, prices and an event schedules, visit www.labiennale.org.